Photograph by Bob King/Duluth News Tribune
Beatrice Ojakangas, Minnesota cookbook author
Legendary Minnesota cookbook author Beatrice Ojakangas.
Beatrice Ojakangas baked her first cake in 1940, on a wood stove, using a recipe from memory. She was about 5 years old. The child, then called Peaches, had been left alone in the kitchen with instructions to keep the stove hot while her mother was in another room in the farmhouse delivering a baby. Little Peaches got out the butter. She got out the flour. But she forgot to get out the sugar, and, tasting the batter, suspected something was wrong. So she added a pinch of salt, then another, till it tasted like something.
Ojakangas writes of her mother’s belated reaction to the cake in her new memoir, Homemade: Finnish Rye, Feed Sack Fashion, and Other Simple Ingredients from My Life in Food: “Many years later she admitted that the cake I had made was so salty it made her tongue curl.” Was this the moment that put young Peaches on the path to becoming one of America’s leading cookbook authors and Minnesota’s answer to Fannie Farmer? The very instant when she knew that her destiny was to write down the teaspoons and tablespoons, to ensure that no future children forgot the sugar? It could be, says Ojakangas. It could also be, she notes, that every single step of her life led to the natural conclusion that she would be who she is, as naturally as a Juicy Bun recipe leads to Juicy Buns.
There is the fact that she was born in 1934 up in Cedar Valley, Minnesota, near Grand Rapids. Being the first child of 10 brothers and sisters led to a number of kitchen duties for Ojakangas. There is the fact that there wasn’t much to do in Cedar Valley, but there was, of course, a desire to socialize, and so afternoons were filled with coffee visits over cake or buns. “I’ve got my mother’s bread pan yet,” Ojakangas tells me on the phone from her home up north—she lives 45 miles from where she grew up. “It held something like five gallons. When there were fresh rolls, oh, we thought that was just so good.” Juicy Buns were a favorite, so named because once out of the oven they were glazed with a sugar-coffee mixture that kept them moist.
Ojakangas later figured out that she could leave sleepy Cedar Valley for a trip to the hubbub of the Minnesota State Fair if she nabbed a local 4-H blue ribbon, which she did, repeatedly. Those ribbons set her up well for the 1957 Pillsbury Bake-Off, where she won Second Grand Prize for her Chunk O’Cheese Bread. She and the other finalists got their picture taken with special guest Ronald Reagan. “He was so bored,” remembers Ojakangas. “This was before he was ‘The Great Communicator.’ . . . He just stood there and put on a fake smile and hid his cigarette.”
Life in food was so big and surprising it convinced Ojakangas she wanted more, so she stopped in at the offices of Sunset when she needed cash to support her two kids and her husband, who at the time was in graduate school at Stanford University. Sunset took her on as a typist, then an editor, and once she saw how recipes worked in print, she was off and galloping. Her first cookbook was on Finnish baking. Her second, Gourmet Cooking for Two, was born when she and her husband wanted the Bay Area restaurant scene on a grad school budget.
Ojakangas would go on to write 30-some cookbooks; pen articles for the likes of Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Ladies Home Journal, and Redbook; and appear on television with Julia Child and Martha Stewart. She was even named to the James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame—the only other Minnesotan in it is Betty Crocker.
To this day Ojakangas insists she went into it all with no more of a plan than a girl goes into when she’s making Juicy Buns for her little brothers and sisters.
Really? She made a national-class career out of scraps of make-do, like the flour-sack dresses she writes about in chapter 16? Really, says Ojakangas. She may be Minnesota’s Fannie Farmer, but underneath it all she’s a Minnesota farm kid. That’s why she wrote a memoir—to catch all those farmer-kid details before they vanish. “People have always been curious about my books and how I got to writing them,” she tells me. “I’m just an ordinary person in my own little world here. I didn’t know I was breaking any ground. I was just always looking for something new and different. We were much simpler then.”
If it seems surprising that a farm kid looking for something new could end up taking pictures with Ronald Reagan and baking with Julia Child, pick up a copy of the book. Life used to be simpler, but it was just as juicy.
Beatrice Ojakangas’s Mummy’s “Juicy” Cinnamon Rolls
- 2 packages active dry yeast
- 1 cup warm water
- ½ cup melted butter
- ½ cup sugar
- ½ cup nonfat dry milk
- 2 eggs
- 1 teaspoon salt
- About 4 cups all purpose flour
- ½ cup soft butter
- ½ cup brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon
- 1 cup powdered sugar
- hot strong coffee
In a large bowl, combine the yeast and warm water. Stir. Let stand about 5 minutes or until the yeast foams. Stir in the butter, sugar, dry milk, eggs, and salt. Beat in flour, 1 cup at a time, until the dough is too stiff to mix; you may reach that stage before you have added all the flour. Cover and refrigerate 2 hours or up to 4 days.
On a lightly floured board, cut the dough into two parts. Roll one part at a time to make a rectangle 12 inches square. Spread with ¼ cup soft butter. Mix the sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle with half the brown sugar mixture over the dough. Roll up into a firm, log-shaped roll. Cut diagonally to make about 1-inch slices. Place rolls on a greased baking sheet and let rise for 30 minutes or until golden.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Bake the rolls for 10 to 15 minutes or until golden. Mix the powdered sugar with enough hot coffee to make a thin glaze. Brush baked rolls with the glaze.
Makes 24 large cinnamon rolls.